Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Skeptical of Accreditation

After the basics of the last couple of posts on education (that parents need to be in charge of education choices, and choice means no far away entities imposing curriculum or textbook choices), you probably thought the bases were covered. But you’d be wrong. We’re here to define yet another overlooked and underscrutinized word: accreditation.
The online dictionary starts out with this not-so-helpful definition: “The act of accrediting or the state of being accredited….” Thank you for that circular pretend definition. It does go on to add, “especially the granting of approval to an institution of learning by an official review board after the school has met specific requirements.” OK, that’s closer to what we’d been thinking all along—as far as we did think about it.
I keep an old dictionary, Webster’s New World, last updated in 1982, although older would have been better. Word meanings change, and sometimes it’s helpful to just have something solid and old. (Hint to family members looking to give me a gift sometime: I’d love to have in my library a dictionary from the mid-1700s, something our founders might have used. Or maybe a complete Oxford Unabridged, where they keep every version of every word and just add to it.) Anyway, the word accreditation only appears in my 1982 dictionary as a version of the word accredit. And even then, it isn’t until the fourth definition that it begins to mean what we think of today as accreditation.
If you’re a parent looking at a school, and you’re told the school is accredited, you probably think, “That’s a good thing. At least there are things I can count on.” But what are the things you can count on? That your child will receive the subject matter you want, presented in the best way for your student, at the pace best suited for her? No, no guarantees of that. You will only know that teachers have gone through a certification process, there are a certain number of books in the library, and the school holds classes on a required number of days for a required number of hours. There may be some specific curriculum requirements, but these may or may not coincide with your priorities.
To know more, you’d need to know:
·         Who does the accrediting?
·         What criteria do they use for accrediting?
Those are big questions. If someone has put themselves in a position to judge the educational practices of everyone in the country, what makes them experts? And what is their agenda? Undoubtedly they have one. My agenda is to get the best education for my own children. Their distance from my child automatically means, at best, “positive educational outcomes for the highest percentage of children,” and could be only “making sure no child gets a better opportunity than all other children,” which amounts to “no child gets ahead.” We are at cross purposes.
Assuming you can find out the answers to these questions, you still won’t know anything about whether this school will (or even can) effectively teach your child.
There is no correlation between accreditation and educational outcomes. Let me repeat that, with emphasis:
There is no correlation between accreditation and educational outcomes.
Most private schools are unaccredited. That usually has nothing to do with how well they educate, but hinges on something like spending per student or certification of teachers. (There is no correlation between certification and teaching ability, we might add. Many people with real world experience could be part-time teachers, or switch to the teaching profession, but the onerous certification process boxes them out, protecting the unionized teachers.) Private schools, you’re probably aware, have a very good track record, in general, of good educational outcomes.
Some of that has to do with parental involvement. If a parent is willing to pay a hefty sum for tuition (in addition to the tax money they’re already paying for educational purposes), that parent is already showing they care about the child’s education. So they’re more likely to do follow up with a student, and have a home environment and schedule that allow for study in the home.
Some private schools are accredited, usually larger, more expensive ones. Their outcomes, while significantly better than public schools, are not significantly better than unaccredited private schools.
In Texas, homeschools are considered unaccredited private schools. On the whole, they have excellent outcomes compared to public schools—with more and more evidence appearing as more families jump into the experience. If parental involvement is a key indicator of student success, you’ve got that in a homeschool. You have a low teacher/student ratio and a lot of one-on-one learning time. You have many more opportunities for field trips and hands-on experiences that are just not doable in a mass-production public school setting. And you have curriculum and resource materials customized for the learner.
You don’t always get to know the track record until after the fact, so as a parent you’re taking a risk any direction you take. In my case, as an unaccredited teacher in an unaccredited private school (homeschool), I had a 100% success rate in college acceptance. (The two that graduated from college already are both involved in post-graduate education.) Yay me! Was it a risk? Yes, I could have failed. But failure was not an option, because of how much I cared for each of my children. So I had the right to ask God for help in accomplishing my mission. That’s a much safer risk than leaving my kids’ education to “the professionals.”
While I’m not against the idea of accreditation in all cases (in many fields, credentials are quite meaningful), I think putting our confidence in it concerning public schools is misguided at best, and possibly harmful. And it should never be forced on private schools, including homeschools. Accreditation can be, and is, used as a way of controlling indoctrination of students.
One example has stuck with me, told to me by a friend who taught Constitutional Law for many years in a very good law school. In order for the school to retain its accreditation, the school was required to teach that certain Supreme Court decisions, including Roe v. Wade, were the right decisions. I was stunned by that. Everyone knows that was a bad decision. You can disagree about the outcome desired, but the way the court went about it was just bad judgment based only peripherally on the law. (Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg has admitted that.) My friend couldn’t do it. He quit teaching rather than do it.
Accreditation at higher education levels is the subject for another day, but it remains true that, “Trust me, I’m an expert,” ought to be a red flag.
All education decisions of minor children are best left to parents, and to the most local entities possible. To that end, abolishing the federal level of education is entirely appropriate. If the federal government has any contribution to make (and even this I believe could be done better privately), it would be as a clearinghouse of ideas. It would be nice to have a place to go to compare studies, compare practices, read various first-hand reports of how certain things worked. Give as much information in as open and unfettered a way as possible to allow local entities (down to individual parents and teachers) to make informed choices. Accreditation doesn’t provide informed choice; it prevents it.

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